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East of Eden, John Steinbeck Centennial Edition Paperback – Deckle Edge, June 18, 2003
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"When the book club ended a year ago, I said I would bring it back when I found the book that was moving…and this is a great one. I read it for myself for the first time and then I had some friends read it. And we think it might be the best novel we've ever read!"
About the Author
John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, California, in 1902, grew up in a fertile agricultural valley, about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast. Both the valley and the coast would serve as settings for some of his best fiction. In 1919 he went to Stanford University, where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without taking a degree. During the next five years he supported himself as a laborer and journalist in New York City, all the time working on his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929).
After marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, he published two California books, The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), and worked on short stories later collected in The Long Valley (1938). Popular success and financial security came only with Tortilla Flat (1935), stories about Monterey’s paisanos. A ceaseless experimenter throughout his career, Steinbeck changed courses regularly. Three powerful novels of the late 1930s focused on the California laboring class: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and the book considered by many his finest, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The Grapes of Wrath won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1939.
Early in the 1940s, Steinbeck became a filmmaker with The Forgotten Village (1941) and a serious student of marine biology with Sea of Cortez (1941). He devoted his services to the war, writing Bombs Away (1942) and the controversial play-novelette The Moon is Down (1942). Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1948), another experimental drama, Burning Bright (1950), and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) preceded publication of the monumental East of Eden (1952), an ambitious saga of the Salinas Valley and his own family’s history.
The last decades of his life were spent in New York City and Sag Harbor with his third wife, with whom he traveled widely. Later books include Sweet Thursday (1954), The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (1957), Once There Was a War (1958), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), America and Americans (1966), and the posthumously published Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (1969), Viva Zapata! (1975), The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976), and Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (1989).
Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, and, in 1964, he was presented with the United States Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Steinbeck died in New York in 1968. Today, more than thirty years after his death, he remains one of America's greatest writers and cultural figures.
Top customer reviews
Steinbeck’s masterpiece, for to call it anything less is impossible, has left me with a sense of loss. When I came to the end of this epic tale of family and humanity, I felt abandoned simply because I ran out of words to read. I wanted to carry on in his characters’ lives, spying on their darkness, watching them evolve and bloom and outrun the forces haunting them. No book has made me feel quite so much sadness and excitement at once. Perhaps because I’m a writer, I relished the painterliness of Steinbeck’s prose. I turned every single one of its six-hundred and one pages at a furious pace, and yet I indulged and languished and roamed the landscape he had painted for me, and me alone.
The story is so personal, a reader might feel it is written for her. It is a story we must hear, a story we know, a story with which we can connect, as we do with all the ones passed down from civilization to civilization. We commune with great stories, religious accounts, epic tales, because we see ourselves most readily in them, and as Lee (one of "Eden’s" finest characters) says, that’s why we keep telling, and retelling, them from one generation to the next. Steinbeck draws on the "Old Testament," turning over the story of Cain and Abel and making it his, for us anew. And because we see ourselves in it—our good and evil—we devour his retelling as though it were medicine to save our soul, the cure for all our ails. But perhaps I exaggerate, indulging in the power of the writer a little too much. Or maybe I do feel my soul a little shaken by my experience, swept up in the writer’s magic. Either way, I am satisfied to credit Steinbeck for my joy at venturing into his Eden.
And it is the great landscape, the backdrop of his tale that speaks most readily to the reader. Steinbeck’s setting is in fact a large part of the whole. Like the characters he unearths, the soil on which they stand seems to reach for the sky, yearning to live too. You can’t read "East of Eden" without experiencing the tan valleys of Northern California and the lush green dales of Connecticut. You see his East and his West, you practically smell the air of each, and you believe the world he creates to be the same one in which you live. The opening of the book sets you up for that, tells you, dear reader, you will feel every ounce of nature’s beauty just as the narrator does; her dangerous flirtations, her permanency, her changeability, her gales, her forces, her perpetual and enduring spirit. We do not simply live in nature, but come from it. We embody it; all her forces. I think Steinbeck reminds us of this in such subtle and rare ways it seeps into the subconscious as we follow his narrator through the story of Adam Trask, Samuel Hamilton, and all the characters in-between and after.
“I remember my childhood names for the grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer—and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.”
Effortlessly, Steinbeck strings you along with his prose, fooling you into not seeing the great and gargantuan task he is laying before you. “Timshel,” he teaches you. “Thou mayest,” the two words from "Genesis" that seem to speak most profoundly, for they admit to free will, and your ability to choose to rule over sin. John Milton’s "Paradise Lost" also speaks of this freedom, one in which man has often stumbled, misunderstanding his disobedience, his choice between good and evil. Steinbeck examines this idea throughout the narrative, and shows you the outcomes of those who struggle with the same, and it is in their differences that choice becomes apparent.
I have said little about the characters, the plot, the style and themes, and yet I have said everything I can about a work that has touched me so deeply. I will leave you with this short quote, said once again by Lee, the Chinese American who is the most philosophical, and enlightened of Steinbeck’s family of characters, the sage most inborn to the writer:
“But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”
Steinbeck's novel is held together by the complex and highly developed characters he features as the focus of the book. There are several important characters that can all be defined by a very distinct set of qualities. There is the extremely wise Samuel Hamilton, the intelligent, but naive Adam Trask, and the notoriously evil Cathy Ames. Steinbeck spends a great deal of time developing these characters and the reward is a satisfying representation of America in a period of dishevelment as industrialization and west ward expansion are the focus of society. The plethora of characters created by Steinbeck creates a complex and intricate balance in the novel; the actions of one character will undoubtedly affect all of the characters in either a positive or adverse way. These characters are what truly makes this novel an American classic; Steinbeck's ability to create a memorable cast drive the rest of the story.
One of these characters, Cathy Ames, may be the most evil, twisted character ever created in all of American literature. The reader is introduced to Ames as she murders her parents by lighting their house on fire. From this point on, it is clear that Ames is the embodiment of evil in the novel. As Ames becomes ingratiated into the main plot, more evil actions ensue, including the attempted murder of her husband and the murder of a madam in charge of a brothel. These actions occur before Ames becomes truly evil by the end of the novel. Another of the more memorable characters in East of Eden is Lee, the Trask family's loyal Asian servant. Lee is meant to play the stereotypical Asian role in the novel, but Steinbeck attempts to break race barriers by incorporating Lee into the main plot of the novel. Lee is extremely intelligent and very wise. He puts up a facade of a stereotypical Asian servant around ignorant and arrogant Americans. However, around people he trusts, such as Samuel Hamilton and Adam Trask, he reveals his intelligence. Lee is very complex and Steinbeck ensures that he plays an important role in the novel.
The novel lacks a clearly defined plot; it follows two families over several generations as they struggle to establish themselves in the Salinas Valley in California. However, the novel does act as an allegory to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. There are several obvious references to the book of Genesis throughout the novel (East of Eden, Adam Trask, and the twins Caleb and Aaron, meant to represent Cain and Abel), creating an interesting outlet for Steinbeck to analyze religious and social issues prominent in society during this era of American history. There are times when Steinbeck's commentary is somewhat subtle and there are times when his commentary is blatantly obvious as the narrator provides insight into the state of society during this time. However, unlike other fictitious novels that attempt to tackle heavy topics such as religion, Steinbeck is able to provide this commentary without sounding too pretentious; he doesn't claim to know the answers to some of the more controversial issues regarding religion. This adds depth to Steinbeck's already complex and layered novel, contributing to the intricacy of this intelligently written novel.
East of Eden, like all of Steinbeck's novels, is full of descriptive passages that are essential in establishing the setting for the novel. The novel also takes place in the Salinas Valley of California, the same place that Steinbeck grew up in as a child. Steinbeck's knowledge of the region enables him to provide deep, descriptive details of the setting for the story. The setting is almost as important as the characters, as the distinct environment of the Salinas Valley shapes their behavior throughout the novel. In fact, the Salinas Valley is a metaphor for the lives of the Hamiltons and the Trasks. The valley appears to be heavenly and fertile, but as one digs into the soil unexpected layers of clay, dirt, and rock are revealed. The Hamiltons and the Trasks also appear to have it all together, but as the reader is familiarized with these characters, it becomes clear that they struggle with a great deal of internal conflict. Steinbeck's emphasis on setting also adds to the complexity of the novel, creating a memorable multilayered epic that has become an American classic.
In writing this novel, Steinbeck took on a nearly impossible challenge; he attempted to write a novel that would encompass ideas about morality, religion, and politics, while remaining intelligible to his audience. Steinbeck deserves to be commended for accomplishing this feat. Reading this book should be a requirement for everyone as it successfully touches the reader emotionally, logically, and ethically. The highly complex, but relatable characters will surely find a way to sneak into one's heart and become a conscious reminder of ethical behavior. This novel will truly change lives and this is what has kept it moderately relevant in today's society. Reading this novel will not disappoint.